Two Russian military campaigns to crush Chechen separatism turned Grozny into an apocalyptic wasteland. No city in the former Soviet Union suffered so much destruction since World War II. Images of Grozny a decade ago could easily be confused with those from the Battle of Stalingrad.
The visible scars of the savagery have since been erased. The ambitions of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, inflated by billions of rubles from Kremlin coffers, have transformed Grozny into a glittering monument of hero worship and mass amnesia.
“You don’t see the traces of war? And do you see traces of happiness on people’s faces?” asks a Chechen journalist who shows me around. “I get the impression that one man is building a city for himself.”
I find Grozny largely empty of people. Construction is everywhere, but residents who fled the fighting have still not returned. People grumble that it’s all just pokazukha, window-dressing.
One man tells me that the waiting list for new flats at Minutka – a central square razed in the fighting – hasn’t become any shorter over the past year. Another man says his family still hasn’t received any compensation for their apartment that was completely destroyed. They had to wait 15 years for it during the communist-era housing shortage.
Today the priority is on colossal projects dedicated to the glory of the new regime: a giant mosque, a giant stadium and a new district of high-rises called Grozny City. Signs around town read: “Ramzan, thank you for Grozny.” There are no markers or other reminders of the thousands who perished here.
My Chechen colleague drives me to a new subdivision in the city center with mansions in every style and color. This is where Kadyrov’s courtiers will live, ensconced behind thick brick walls. Ramzan’s own residence will be at the center of the development.
Tomorrow is a holiday, the “Day of the Chechen Language.” I ask my colleague how she will celebrate it.
“Cursing in Russian,” she says.
* * *
I spend the next day exploring Grozny on foot. Nobody from the government wants to talk to me. Kadyrov’s spokesman brushes me off yet again. The Mufti of Chechnya is unavailable, as well as all of his deputies. It’s a holiday. Everybody who’s anybody is expected to attend the official celebrations.
Putin Propsekt is closed to traffic because of a function in the theater. Kadyrovtsy – Ramzan’s personal guard – have blocked off the intersections, some of them in U.S. military-style uniforms tucked into their boots. They stand out from Russian conscripts who are issued ill-fitting uniforms and usually look underfed, sick and unmotivated. The Kadyrovtsy are proud and cocky, best avoided.
I head down the street to the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, named after Ramzan’s martyred father.
Like all provincial towns in Russia, Grozny takes its cues for sophistication and good taste from Moscow. There’s a TsUM department store and a VIP beauty salon and even a sushi restaurant.
The mosque, the biggest in Russia, stands at the beginning of Putin Prospekt. The glass towers of Grozny City loom behind it.
The mosque was built by Turkish construction workers and is clearly modeled on the grand mosques of Istanbul – domes bubbling one over the other with four soaring minarets.
A sign over the defunct metal detector at the entrance indicates that mobile phones and pistols are prohibited. Inside, on thick green carpets, there is space for thousands of worshipers on three levels. No expense was spared on the intricate stonework and shimmering chandeliers. The lampposts in the park outside were imported from Italy.
I cross the Sunzha River, a narrow channel of muddy water, to the construction site of Grozny City, half a dozen high-rises of about 30 stories each. Turks, not Chechens, are at work here.
A few steps up Akhmad Kadyrov Prospekt is Grozny’s Russian Orthodox church, a small, neat building with white walls and golden domes. The gate is open, and I walk into the courtyard where I find two old women. I introduce myself as an American living in Moscow.
“There are good and bad people in all nations,” one of the grannies says. It’s a cautious welcome.
The 2 o’clock service has just begun. A couple of federal Interior Ministry soldiers are standing guard outside the entrance. It’s Easter Monday.
A pair of elderly women are singing inside the church. Two young men join them. Besides the priest, there is no one else.
I continue up Kadyrov Prospekt. More signs of construction: another mosque, the “Grozny City” restaurant and entertainment center, workers putting up facades of beige stone on older buildings.
My self-guided tour is over, I’ve seen everything there is to see.
Five blocks from my hotel, just off Putin Prospekt, I notice that a crowd has gathered on a street corner. The police have cordoned off access to a courtyard behind several five-story apartment buildings. I see special forces in helmets, goggles and body armor.
A man surveys the scene, drawing on his cigarette. The operation has already been going on for a couple of hours, he says. Apparently a boyevik – a fighter – has barricaded himself inside an apartment.
It’s a rare occurrence, the man reassures me.
The war is over.